Trying to establish a new theater company in an unfamiliar town means scaling a steep learning curve. But after only four years in Raleigh, Burning Coal Theatre Company’s husband-wife team, Jerome Davis and Simmie Kastner, look upon the Triangle’s performing arts landscape from a mighty peak, with the eyes of seasoned climbers. Within that short time they’ve won grants and critical acclaim that long-established groups would kill for, while the audience of 13 that graced their inaugural performance in 1996 has grown into full houses and sold-out shows. A serious leg-up from the local arts community has helped, they say.
“Before we came here people we know who are running theaters around the country told us, ‘Don’t expect any kind of a grant for your first 10 years, don’t expect any help from anybody,’” says Artistic Director Davis, who moved with Kastner from New York in 1996, bringing their nonprofit theater company with them. But before they had produced even one play, the City of Raleigh Arts Commission awarded Burning Coal a $5,000 grant based only on their résumés and grant proposal. The United Arts Council of Wake County and the N.C. Arts Council followed suit the following year, providing significant portions of the group’s budget.
“This runs contrary to the clichéd image of small-town arts funding, where the people who get money this year are the same ones who got it last year,” says Davis. They’ve even earned the attention of Mayor Paul Coble, who, in recommending to the Raleigh Arts Commission this year that money for public sculptures be diverted to performing groups, mentioned Burning Coal Theatre by name. And how many Raleigh arts groups can get a local critic to defend their funding before the Wake County Arts Council? Last year, theater critic Robert McDowell of the Spectator volunteered to sing for Burning Coal’s supper.
The spirit of camaraderie in the Triangle’s theater community has also been a pleasant surprise for the new company. Even though their subscription base is rising at a time when theater attendance in general is falling, Kastner and Davis have seen little jealousy from other arts groups. Burning Coal’s small budget means that their productions are, in Kastner’s words, “stone soup,” but Raleigh Ensemble Players, Theatre in the Park and Meredith College have come to their rescue by providing lighting equipment and flats, and Thompson Theater has loaned them “just about everything.” Their success has been a community effort, they say. “Other arts groups understand we’re bringing new blood and energy into the area and it’s helping to revitalize their own organizations as well,” Davis says.
That new blood includes the 40-year-old Davis himself, who has studied with Uta Hagen, appeared with Ellen Burstyn in a production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, and directs and acts in some of Burning Coal’s productions. But they’ve also tugged other experienced talent here from New York, such as secret weapon David Dossey. The 44-year-old stage, screen and film actor’s credits include performing with George C. Scott on Broadway in Inherit the Wind and appearances in New York productions directed by Mark Rylance, the current artistic director of the New Globe Theatre in London. Dossey has now settled with his wife in Raleigh and is a drama teacher at Campbell University.
Even with a high level of community support, Burning Coal’s success wouldn’t have come without the rigorous standards and degree of innovation that the artistic director demands. Davis, who was born and raised in Tennessee but lived in New York for 12 years before moving to Raleigh, felt that it should not be necessary for great Southern artists to go to New York or Los Angeles to make their careers. “There was a lot of very pleasant theater being done here, but there weren’t plays that were really tough enough for a young audience,” he says. The company’s name, in fact, is a biblical reference that refers to the “pacifist aggressive” act of offering food and drink to one’s enemies, which the Bible likens to dumping burning coals over them.
Kastner likes to quote a local critic who said that their plays show a unique combination of mind and heart. “Our plays affect you emotionally and intellectually, but not because we’ve placed an agenda on you,” she says. “We’re not interested in agitprop. We actively avoid material that comes down on one side or another of an issue.” Although each of their seasons has included one Shakespeare production, Burning Coal is better known for their contemporary plays. They made their mark with their very first show, Rat in the Skull, a sledgehammer of a play about the troubles in Northern Ireland. The play’s action revolves around the verbally and psychologically brutal interrogation of a suspected IRA bomber by an inspector with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Says Davis, “We chose this to open our first season to say quite clearly we are here to do serious and bold work, and get on board the train if you dare.”
Later seasons have launched a string of triumphs, including young playwright Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas, about a cynical theater critic in Dublin who becomes involved with a group of real-world vampires; an original adaptation of Einstein’s Dreams, which demonstrated that, along with the rough and sweaty plays, Burning Coal could do controlled and refined work; and Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day, a hugely successful production that took the play of ideas and made it passionate and visceral.
Their next season will come full circle with The Weir (also by McPherson), a production of Macbeth, and a remounting of the New York production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with local actors. The latter is already creating a buzz that may drown out any noise made over other local productions this year. The deconstructionist reworking of the story, which is cast with a variety of ethnic actors, takes apart the text in Act 1 and performs it in a different order, recasting roles so that they’re read a second or third time from a different ethnic perspective. The second act brings in third parties critical of the story, who comment on the shifting reception of the play over time, as it went from being considered an anti-slavery polemic to a racist tract. If critical reception is anything like what it was in New York, where this off-off Broadway play received a rave review in the The New York Times, Burning Coal Theatre will close their fourth season in the Triangle with a heap of new accolades.
In fact, if they had a dollar for every time one of their productions has been called “brilliant” or “original,” Burning Coal could afford its own theater. In their own space, they could put on free performances, hold workshops, and create a “signature environment” for their minimalist productions. As it is, they play where they can, but are angling for a permanent space at the Murphey School on Person Street in Raleigh, which Kastner identifies as a kind of dividing line between white and black Raleigh. “And that’s exactly where we want to be,” she says.
“We have grandiose ambitions and not enough money to make it happen,” says Davis, who would also like to have a permanent company of actors whom he could put on contract and pay a living wage, “so they can have a family and a dog and a house, because actors never seem to get that.” Can the money be found in the Triangle to create a thriving, innovative theater community? Davis sees some hope, likening the growing interest in theater here to the recent groundswell in the rock scene in places like Seattle and Athens, Ga. Even with intense competition from other sources of entertainment, Davis sees theater as a unique event. “A movie is the same every time, but 95 percent of what you see in a Burning Coal show will be different from last night and from what it will be tomorrow night,” he says. “If you do it right, the actors are putting themselves in danger every night. That keeps it alive for the audience because they can sense that–and that keeps the actors alive.”